Colloquium: Sylvester Johnson

Date(s) - 05/09/2024
3:00 pm - 4:00 pm

4010 JFSB


The Humanities Center is pleased to welcome Sylvester Johnson, founding director of the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities as our Colloquium speaker on Thursday, May 9th at 3:00 PM in 4010 JFSB. He will be discussing technology and leadership in the humanities. We hope you will join us. Refreshments will be served.

Title: “Humanities & Public Interest Technology: Leading the Ethical Governance of Innovation”

Since the Sputnik success of 1957, the United States has invested strategically in disciplines of science, math, and engineering to advance America’s leadership in technology. Over the past half-century, American institutions of learning have adopted a STEM-mostly or STEM-only approach to funding, investment, and nurturing the future of talent. This has achieved remarkable developments in technical systems of innovation, from generative AI to algorithmic weapons to genetic engineering.

These funding and policy trends have marginalized humanities disciplines. And yet, today, the most difficult challenges of technology are not technical but humanistic, emerging at the human frontier of innovation. How might democratic institutions and processes exist in a world where private software makes decisions affecting the public? How will innovation shape the future of wealth and inequality? What regulations and standards should govern the algorithmic design and AI applications?

In this talk, Sylvester Johnson, Associate Vice Provost for Public Interest Technology at Virginia Tech, will explain the fundamental challenges the future of innovation poses for managing technology to benefit the public interest and societal outcomes. He will identify the pivotal role that the humanities must serve for creating future talent to lead innovation and structure responsible governance for a technological society.

About our guest:

Sylvester A. Johnson is Associate Vice Provost for Public Interest Technology and Executive Director of the “Tech for Humanity” initiative advancing human-centered approaches to technology at Virginia Tech. He is the founding director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Humanities, which supports scholarship in arts, humanities, and social sciences. Sylvester’s research has examined religion, race, and empire in the Atlantic world; religion and sexuality; national security practices; and the impact of intelligent machines and human enhancement on human identity and race. He is a Professor in the Department of Religion and Culture and a design-team affiliate faculty member in Virginia Tech’s socio-technical, transdisciplinary Calhoun Discovery Program.

Sylvester is the author of The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity (Palgrave 2004), a study of race and religious hatred that won the American Academy of Religion’s Best First Book award; and African American Religions, 1500-2000 (Cambridge 2015), an award-winning interpretation of five centuries of democracy, colonialism, and freedom in the Atlantic world. Johnson has also co-edited The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11 (University of California 2017) and Religion and US Empire (NYU Press 2022). He is a founding co-editor of the Journal of Africana Religions. He is currently writing a book on human identity in an age of intelligent machines and human-machine symbiosis, tentatively titled “Do Robots Have Souls?”

He leads “Future Humans, Human Futures” at Virginia Tech, a series of research institutes and symposia funded by the Henry Luce foundation that focus on technology, ethics, and religion. He is also directing the development of a university-wide undergraduate curriculum, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to prepare future talent at the intersection of humanities, social justice, and technology.


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